Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Speaking of Doormats

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, Read by Librivox Readers, Public Domain

Rarely have I listened to or read a novel like Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, one that provided me with so much frustration at the protagonist. Time and again I wanted to shout at the mousy little wisp of a thing, Fanny Price. I wanted to grab her and shake her, much as various characters wish to do no doubt at various points throughout. She is prissy, timid, moralizing, inflexible, and retiring — and we’re supposed to admire her.

While I clearly understand the mistake made too often of judging a novel by contemporary standards and mores, I find it hard to imagine there weren’t plenty of readers of Austen’s day who wished to hurl this novel aside with great force. No matter what the time, readers wish to see characters who long to obtain their heart’s desires, wish to see them striving toward that goal, wish to see them show some sign of life in that direction. It matters not whether or not they are successful; the desire is everything.

For the life of me, save for pining in secret and being a good little girl, I can’t see what it is that Franny Price ever, ever, ever does that moves her any closer to accomplishing her furtive wish. Her passivity at every turn save her active avoidance of what she is certain will bring her no credit or happiness is simply maddening.

Quite certainly the most serious of Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park wearies us with its lack of liveliness and wit. The retiring personality of Fanny Price so oversaturates the novel that even characters who otherwise might dazzle us with their bravado, their fatuous self-regard, their villainy come off merely as a collection of slow-witted types. What amusement one can wring from the novel is most to be found in the selfish but blind viciousness of Mrs. Norris, Fanny’s widowed aunt who lives near Mansfield Park.

If there is a more horrible character in the book, I can’t figure out who it might be. Is there a crueler moment in the novel than Chapter 23’s speech, prior to a dinner party, in which Mrs. Norris, vexed at having to stay the evening with her sister in Fanny’s place, informs Fanny that she should always be under everyone, always the last and the least? I can’t think of one offhand and Mrs. Norris provides us with many such “proper” slights.

There is a little more than a smidge of Cinderella in this novel. But what is interesting, much more prevalent and noticeable in this book when compared to Austen’s other novels (no matter how similar they may be in certain respects), is how much and how often males make decisions for females. Indeed, the notion of the female mind in opposition to males is considered here much more specifically.

Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny’s uncle (and surrogate father, as it were) is in the habit of pronouncing along the lines of “It is decided” when making up his mind as to who Fanny should (must) marry or when she shall go visit her family. Benevolent as he is most of times (though stern), these comments are not merely paternalisms natural for the time, but the patronizing attitude of one who rarely considers women having minds of their own. Indeed, when Fanny rejects Henry Crawford’s suit, Sir Thomas is aghast and dresses her down for her impudence. Partly this is for her rejection of, financially weighed, a good match, but there is more than a little shock in his words that a woman should do as she wished and not as he did.

Such an underlining to this could hardly be more imagined as when Fanny returns to her family home for a visit. Mr. Price, Fanny’s father, barely acknowledges her despite his not having seen her in eight years, wanting only to talk of men things with Fanny’s brother William and of the ship Thrush out at harbor. After all the bustle of arriving and family life has settled, Mr. Price and Fanny being the two remaining in the room, her father pulls out his newspaper and begins reading it as she sits there quietly for half an hour. Austen makes it plain: high or low, a very great number of men care little for what women think.

One thinks throughout the novel, now this a good time for Emma Woodhouse to roll up in a coach and start scaring the starch out of these father figures, but alas, no. While this deaf ear is most pronounced in the elder set, the younger men too often fail to hear what the fair sex is saying all around them. Edmund Bertram, while so attentive to Fanny, so considerate in comparison, hears not the scorn his beloved Mary Crawford heaps on his chosen profession and all he holds dear. Henry Crawford, when rejected by Fanny, believes that no matter what this silly little girl thinks, she will come to love him because…well, just because. Isn’t he a man with a good income?

The book’s earlier chapters, well designed to give us a portrait of a woman set against making herself felt or known in the world, are at times a bit exasperating and tiresome. Fanny’s lack of spirit seems rather puzzling, though why we should feel we require a spunky heroine is a good question; nevertheless, the book’s last ten chapters are filled with a kind of high drama in which such a non-hysterical character shows up to her greatest advantage.

What proves the greatness weakness of the novel is Austen’s overarching construction. No matter how many privations our heroine is made to endure, no matter how bleak the situation ever gets, you know the ending. And when the crisis that makes up the novel’s climax approaches, you are insensible to the damage and havoc it wreaks on all the other characters because you know that the upshot of it all is Fanny Price’s felicity and happiness. The whole novel surges toward it and whether or not men give a hoot what women think or are made to learn of their own folly, Fanny Price will marry Edmund Bertram and be happy ever after, so there.

It is almost as if all the climactic episodes were constructed merely to remove obstacles to this heroine’s happiness. It is the disappearance of all these last hurdles, accomplished as they are in such a trice, that makes for such a dissatisfying conclusion. When in, say, Sense and Sensibility, everything comes aright, it feels an effortless outgrowth of what perchanced before, everything all parties have been engaged upon (whether to thwart or accomplish). Yet here, it is almost as if Fanny trips over her own happiness and falls face first into marriage. Ho hum.

While Mansfield Park has a numerous assortment of readers as did Northanger Abbey, the series managers had the good sense this time around to provide us with the same reader for blocks at a time. Tina Tilney, a quite accomplished narrator, bangs us out the gate with two chapters straight which is a nice set up, allowing us to get used to the characters as they are introduced

Kristin Hughes takes over for the next two and this double pairing of readers and chapters continues the pleasant feeling of continuity. If Hughes, who we last heard in Northanger Abbey, were at any pains seeking professional employment reading audiobooks, her turns here would demonstrate how suited to the task she is. An elegant voice, clear diction, discriminating use of characterization, all conspire to stagger the mind when you consider such productions are available free for the taking.

Kristen McQuillin too returns from Northanger Abbey and remains an inspiration, a delight, and records as professionally as anything you’re likely to have heard anywhere else. Judy Bieber, who reads for nearly a solid hour of joy, sounds as much like Sarah Key-DeLyria and Heather Barnett, that three such readers pulling in seven straight chapters lends the recording a far more satisfying sense of consistency. Of such things are listening pleasures made.

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